Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Oh, the irony!

By Don Keith

Interesting news stories--with a common theme--in the October 2017 issue of the amateur radio magazine CQ. They are:

A report that the U.S. military has, after much experimentation and testing, decided that the high-frequency radio spectrum (HF, often referred to as "shortwaves") offer excellent communication capability and could be of great value. The story includes a quote from a Navy spokesperson that, "We tested our ability to talk, and we were able to send text to one of our other units that is across the Pacific Ocean." The military release goes on to say, "HF has become a viable alternative for military forces when more common forms of communication, such as satellites, are unavailable." Such technology offers legitimate and valuable backup to whiz-bang satellites and digital yakking.

Well, "Duh #1!" Even now, when solar propagation is approaching a minimum, the shortwaves do offer propagation to all parts of the world. Talk across the Pacific?  Heck, I did that just this past weekend...from my basement!  Guam and Japan, to be exact, all the way from Alabama. And I also made a contact with a ham radio operator in Western Australia via what we call the "long path," not the usual 11,000-mile route to my west and to the Land Down Under.  No, we communicated with my signal leaving my basic little wire beam, running about 500 watts, and headed eastward, across the Atlantic Ocean, over Africa, across the Indian Ocean, about 13,500 miles to the other amateur's station. If the U.S. military is still not convinced of the capabilities of HF, I invite them to take a look at my logbook.

Then there is another report that the Navy is revisiting more ancient technology, the LORAN earth-based radio navigation system that has been mostly replaced by GPS satellites. Someone realized that those satellites can be hacked and most ships at sea would instantly be lost...unless they could locate their sextant and wait for a night sky. (Last I heard, most Navy vessels, and especially submarines, still carried that truly ancient device, the sextant, just in case. They can only hope somebody aboard knows how to use them.)

"Duh! #2."  LORAN worked pretty well, I understand. The fact it was based on radio and required some rather bulky antennas spelled its doom years ago. Appears, though, that somebody realized that sparkly, spangly new technology may have its flaws.  Just as with our trusty and reliable computers, a backup is always a good idea!

And finally, it probably would not surprise you to know that most people under 25 years old would have no idea about what a 33-and-a-third RPM record was. Or an 8-track tape. Or even a cassette tape. Not even, in many cases, a music CD. But did you know that many younger folks today don't realize that your television set can pull in programming from, in most cities, more than a dozen 24-hour-a-day content generators?  A source not associated with a satellite or cable? And that such stellar programming is absolutely free?  It's called over-the-air television broadcasting! Yes, a tower on the hill, pumping out hundreds of thousands of watts of high-definition TV programs. These stations DO still exist! All you need to get this programming is an antenna.  Your TV set is already equipped to pull in the signals. And once you pay for the antenna, the rest is free. Gratis. No cost whatsoever, other than having to watch commercials.

The CQ article quotes a story in The Wall Street Journal reporting that the National Association of Broadcasters--the industry group that represents, in part, those over-the-air telecasters--says one in three Americans are completely unaware of such technology. They also quote a merchant that sells antennas saying that many of his customers question the legality of intercepting this programming for no charge. "They don't believe me when I tell them that these channels are not only free but legal, too," the merchant says.

The final "Duh!" Technological change has become so rapid that even existing technology that still offers real benefit--HF radio, LORAN, over-the-air TV--can get lost in the swirl of sexy new stuff.

(And a personal note, my dad became a TV repairman and antenna installer way back in the early 1950s. That was when people realized that they could get television programming in their home, that it was like radio only with pictures, and they only needed to purchase a set and put up an antenna. My dad put up masts with antennas on top of them all over East Central Alabama. Maybe some of those are still up there after sixty years and can still pull in a picture. Who knows?)

Oh, the irony!



Monday, November 20, 2017

So, is the Internet going to be the death of amateur radio?

by Don Keith

Lazy man's post today as I continue to work far more than a "retired" guy should.  (Massaging two potential movie/TV scripts and writing a novel.) But a good ham radio blogger, Bob K0NR, has posed this fascinating--and probably unanswerable--question: is the Internet killing amateur radio?
Read it in its entirety HERE.
I tend to agree with Bob's final opinions. As with any other aspect of rapid technological change and its effect on ham radio, it all comes down to what you enjoy. I happen to take advantage of many of the new developments in our hobby and am convinced it is a healthy trend and will attract more folks to ham radio.
For example, I check in regularly with a net devoted to 1960s music and TV trivia. That net is centered with most of its members in Central Arizona and uses a 220-mhz repeater on Mt. Lemmon north of Tucson. I use EchoLink and my desktop computer to check in but the net control hears me via the repeater station, over the air. We have guys checking in from all over the country including one ham who travels extensively. He uses his smartphone from various hotel rooms, restaurants, city streets (he often walks for exercise while answering those trivia questions) and airport terminals.

I also use computer logging, Logbook of the World to go for various on-air operating awards, Internet uploads of radiosport logs, and more. 

I have no issue with remote operation of an amateur radio station either. The station "location" is wherever the transmitter, receiver and antenna(s) are located. If the operator happens to be 10,000 miles away using VOIP or other modern gizmo to control the station then so be it.
Whenever old-line hams say all this computer and Internet stuff is not real amateur radio, I point out that other generations of ham operators said the same thing of every innovation that came after spark gap. I even remember vividly when there were actual fistfights and on-air screaming matches between those who believed single-sideband was the death of the hobby and those who saw this "modern technology" as just another aspect of technological change that could make ham radio more fun and communication more effective.

And guess who was right?  

(This from a guy who still has a weekly chat on "ancient modulation" AM on 75 meters.  That's because I just happen to like the way a good AM signal sounds. Oh, and the fact that it is just plain fun to fool with!)

73 de N4KC

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

That ugly term "for-profit" rears its ugly head...again

By Don Keith

(Pardon me while I step away once again from the primary purpose of this blog, keeping track of rapid technological change and its effect on media, society, and my hobby of choice, amateur radio. I've become riled again about a subject that seems so utterly simple and understandable, yet one so many get so wrong. Help me understand why other seemingly sane and intelligent people can't see it my way!)

All the breathless hyperbole was inevitable after yet another president and Congress declared yet again their intention to radically alter how we tax revenue earned by citizens of this country. Too many oxen get gored, too much political patronage becomes threatened, and too many people who have careers and earning schemes and entire industries predicated on the inner workings of this mess. Also, the sheer complexity of the tax code and the fact that we have come to depend on the "temporary" income tax to fund every worthy cause or complete boondoggle assures that changing anything meaningful in regard to taxation is going to be problematic. Maybe impossible.

Even now, as Congress wrangles, we see clear-eyed predictions that what they will eventually propose will either make taxation beautifully balanced and perfect or it will create the death of the middle class as we know it while the filthy rich become even filthier and richer. Never mind that nothing is final yet, or the fact that these predictions fall perfectly along a line of demarcation depending on whether the predictor is a Democrat or a Republican. Partisanship will be the death of this democracy. Mark my words.

Well, today I received from a friend a link to a Washington Post op/ed piece that pretty much says anything that ends up in a new tax plan is in there not because it is a good idea.  It is becoming the law of the land because certain key legislators already have cushy jobs lined up after leaving Congress and will put anything in the plan that it takes to close the deal on those employment contracts they are busily negotiating.

Bull feces!  I'm as cynical as the next guy. But I also am certain as I can be that we need to change the way we do taxation in this country. Perfect or not, any plan that lowers taxes for anybody...ANYBODY...is a good thing.  And especially if it forces us to also finally consider how we spend taxpayer money. Hard-earned and begrudgingly surrendered taxpayer money that is rightfully ours, not the government's.

By the way, if you are one of those who think it is a legitimate goal of a central federal government to assure every citizen gets FREE medical care for life or FREE college, regardless whether or not you take care of your health and use that medical help wisely or whether or not you should even go to college, you may as well stop reading now.  You and I will never agree.

Now, my real problem with this op/ed piece: the continuation of the trend to treat terms like "CEO" and "profit" as sleazy, dirty, despicable words. Anyone who leaves Congress to go to work for a consortium of business people has to be a crook, a plant to get those evil, greedy businessmen less taxes and more slimy profits while crushing the struggling middle class so the crooks and thieves in business can line their own bulging pockets with more and more ill-gotten gains.

First of all, "CEO," "profit," and "business" are not dirty words. "Taxation" often is. Especially "taxation" when it is applied to punish those who dare to work, risk, innovate and create in the name of making a profit for themselves, their employees, and their stockholders. And to make better stuff for their customers, too.  I am convinced it is time for us to get over this insane jealousy and distrust of everybody who tries to make a profit, assuming that if they do make money they accomplished success by illegally and immorally squashing competition, creating dangerous products or services, and by bribing every public servant in sight to keep their ill-gotten gains.

(If you have time for even more ranting on this subject, see my blog post from several years ago on this very subject, culled from my previous experiences in a business that actually does a much better job in its field than many of its government competitors and have caught its share of hell for daring to do so...in the name of...yeeccchhh!!!...profits.  See that blog post HERE. But be aware: my wonderfully well-written set of arguments did not change a damn thing. And your government has almost succeeded in putting out of business most of its competitors in that particular field, a true loss for students, the middle class and employers everywhere. Your government is especially adept at putting anyone it wants to out of business, believe me. I speak from direct experience.)

Let me be unequivocal. Any reduction in any taxation for anybody is a good thing. I get so tired of hearing about tax breaks for "the rich." Many assume that if rich folks get to keep more of their profits, that would remove money from circulation and we regular folks will have no chance of ever getting any of it. Or that we are just encouraging companies to do bad things by allowing them to keep more of that money earned on the backs of their poor, beaten-down workforce.  Neither is true!

Those CEOs don't back up the dump truck filled with all that misbegotten money and drop it into a hole in the ground out behind their polluting factory, and cover it up with the ashes of even more burned money! Or make their pitiful, overworked, mistreated workers man shovels and cover it over.

If they truly seek profit and success--for themselves, for their employees and for their stockholders--they reinvest it in their companies, doing R&D, creating new, innovative products, building a place to house all those new employees and labs and factories and warehouses, purchasing transportation, hiring more workers, paying more for them. That's because there will be competition for good, skilled employees, vying with each other and willing to pay for the best. And, at the same time, paying more and offering promotions and even better working conditions for the valuable employees they already have. If they don't, somebody else will recruit them away.

Oh, and successful businesses will pay more taxes even if their rate is markedly lower. But if a 40% tax lurks out there, good CEOs--looking out for themselves, their employees, their stockholders--use every legal loophole they can find, even if it does drag down the economy where they would prefer to compete, but they also know how difficult re-investment and innovation and planning for future growth will be. Or, as so often happens, they realize they simply can't compete with at least 40% coming off the top and they scale back or go do something else. How does that create reinvestment, hiring, training, innovation, increased wages and, naturally, more taxes paid, or all those other things that are not yet negative buzzwords?

And yes, if they and their companies become successful, some CEOs will buy themselves more yachts, more luxury cars, bigger mansions, more vacation homes. But every yacht for which they place an order creates many more jobs and successful manufacturers of yacht-building-stuff, and more profitable marinas and...well...more! And those yacht builders and yacht-part-companies and marina owners will build more factories and warehouses and boat slips, pay more taxes and hire more people who will pay more taxes and buy more non-luxury cars and new homes and take vacations they could not previously afford, which creates more non-luxury-car and home-building jobs for people who will earn more, spend more, pay more taxes...

And many of those flourishing yacht companies and non-luxury-car manufacturers will have their own rotten, mean-spirited, greedy, soul-crushing CEOs who are trying to come up with better products, hire more people, increase their market share and raise their stock value so they, too, can buy more yachts, more luxury cars...

Some may even become so rich that they spend most of their time finding ways to give away some of that money to worthy, deserving causes.  Causes that the government cannot assist because it would require a massive bureaucracy and books and books of new rules and regulations and paperwork-reduction guidelines to get a fraction of the money to those who need it or could do good with it.

Heck, some of those terrible profits may end up with financial institutions who will be able to open the vault every so often and allow somebody to borrow some of it in order to start a new company, build a new factory, create a new software system, buy an overseas competitor or do something else profitable and positive and life-changing for people just now entering the workforce.  Or who might dare to do so over the next few decades while they wait for free college or healthcare.

Do I like the fact that a guy who sits on a key taxation-policy committee has already decided that he is going to work for a consortium of businesses in Ohio that is lobbying for lower taxes?  Nope.  That's one "onerous" regulation I'd like to see put in place.  Congressmen should not be able to parlay public service into cushy jobs afterwards. But show me quid pro quo here. We want citizen politicians yet when they come to office from the business world or return to civilian life when they get fed up, we automatically assume they got that dream job because of all the shafting they did of the people they were elected to serve. Not necessarily so.

In fact, I'd bet this guy was already for lower taxes on business anyway. Always has been. Ran on such a platform idea. Truly believes allowing business to keep more of what they make--just as with individuals like you and me--leads to more reinvestment or productive spending or saving somewhere down the line. And that he is qualified for the job he will get. And we are probably wrong if we assume there is some kind of collusion here, that they are not really hiring him because he is going to steer sensible business tax law into reality as opposed to keeping the incomprehensible and deflating mess we now have.

And am I all sweetness and light, certain that there are not some terrible CEOs or terrible companies out there who would eviscerate their mothers for a 2% uptick in first quarter revenue? If course not. There are bad actors, polluters, bribers, rapists and pillagers out there, but reasonable...REASONABLE, consistent, predictable...regulation and prosecution will keep that to a minimum.  So will an open and unfettered marketplace.

The fact is that such bad-acting companies will only make a profit for a limited amount of time if they operate in a truly free, transparent, competitive, reasonably- and predictably-regulated marketplace.  Especially now, when anybody with a cell phone can report such bad acting to a vast audience. Customers quickly learn who the shysters are and who the good corporate citizens are, and the right folks will ultimately get rewarded. "Ultimately" being much quicker than ever before in our history of railroad barons, trusts, monopolies, and "too big to fail."

Maybe this opinion writer in the Washington Post is correct, though. After all, that Ohio group is made up of businesses and CEOs and we know how evil--at least according to many columnists and Hollywood--that insatiable profit motive is.  That all business people are dedicated to squashing the little man, keeping sweat-shop employees on subsistence wages, all while making as gargantuan a profit as they can by turning out shoddy, dangerous products and foisting them on a stupid public.

Then, once they have accumulated all the money in the world and have bought everything they can possibly buy for themselves, they take the rest of that filthy lucre, put it in a dump truck, and drop it into a hole in the ground and cover it over so nobody else can get it. Or force their miserable employees to do it with spoons for shovels while upper management lash them with cats-o-nine-tails.

Or use some of it to bribe Congressman so the CEO and his damned company can make more money to bribe even more Congressmen.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

I don't know why I expected anything better

by Don Keith
If you are a friend on Facebook or frequent some of the more popular amateur radio hobbyist groups  there, or if you follow me on Twitter, I owe you an apology. Yesterday I received a tweet from ARRL letting us know that the very popular CBS Network TV show "NCIS" would have a strong plot line featuring ham radio. Since I'm always excited when people are exposed to a hobby I have enjoyed and benefited from for better than half a century, I posted the news everywhere I could.

I wish I had not. I don't need any help from Mark Harmon to get my blood pressure up.

I should have known from past experience that most portrayals of our hobby are bogus and ill-informed, from Herman Munster to the space alien Alf, though they were light years better than the pitiful mess on "NCIS" last night. 

There have been a few decent ones: "Last Man Standing" on ABC (Tim Allen even got his ham license in real life because of his character's interest in the hobby) and the movie "Frequency," even though the characters transmitted on an old Heathkit RECEIVER throughout the film. But at least the characters were not depicted as socially challenged dweebs who "perfectly fit the stereotype," an actual line from "NCIS."

Okay, I confess I have not watched a full episode of any of the flavors of "NCIS" because I found the situations totally unrealistic and what few I have spent more than a few minutes with were just downright silly. Therefore I should not be surprised that this attempt to include ham radio was just downright wrong at best and mean-spirited in actuality.

For the life of me I can't understand why, if they are going to make amateur radio a key element of the story line, they don't get a little input and get it right. A quick visit to the ARRL web site could have helped immensely.  Asking the local ham club to give input would have kept them from being absolutely insulting.  Maybe.

  • Hams don't use "handles." That's CB. Common mistake but why do it? Oh, that did fit into the plot somewhat since they had to use direction-finding to locate one ham they wanted to talk with about a murder. And they couldn't have just looked up a call sign on QRZ.com or the FCC database. That would have made the geniuses at NCIS unnecessary.
  • There are plenty of real but unused call signs they could have used instead of that silly mishmash they came up with. 
  • The two ham "shacks" they showed must have had a dozen transceivers in each. That was just an effort to further demonstrate how crazy these hams were.
  • The log book they showed would have had call signs in it, not "handles," and it would have been a snap to look them up on many web sites or in the FCC database. 
  • "His antennas have a range of 80 square miles." Ridiculous! The conglomeration of radios the murdered guy had and the big beam antenna and ham gear at his buddy's house can reach the other side of the planet. But they had to keep the dead guy's coverage down in order to determine that there were 630 licensed amateur radio operators that could possibly be able to talk to the poor fellow. And a quick look at their names instantly gave them the likely "handle" of the person they wanted to speak with. Wow!

But the worst parts were the constant references and portrayals of the amateur radio guys in the story as socially repressed loners, holed up in their shacks, grown men living with their mothers, unable to function except for jabbering for hours on their radios. Such a stereotype is absolutely untrue and, frankly, insulting. I have no data but I'd bet the number of socially non-functioning personalities in our hobby is actually less than in the general population. 

See, we communicate all the time, not just via radios but in many other ways, too. 

What they said about amateur radio often being the only means of communications during disasters is absolutely true. We've seen plenty of that in the past few months in flood- and hurricane-ravaged areas. Thanks for throwing us that bone anyway, NCIS. 

But when you consider the premise for this episode is that the drug cartel is hauling in cocaine, mixing it with sand, and dumping it into the traps on a golf course...well, again I should not be surprised at the hatchet job they did on a fine one-hundred-year-old hobby that almost a million-and-a-half of us enjoy and that does so much good for so many.

I've seen some scathing posts on many of the group pages this morning already. Many have written the network expressing their disappointment.  Hey, I know everyone is easily offended these days, and being politically correct seems at epidemic proportions, but why does a network, a show, its writers and producers feel they can malign a group of hobbyists as they did.  Here is just one such note to CBS that I believe says it well:

"You have insulted over 1,352,000 Amateur Radio Operators. Or Ham Radio, if you prefer. Did your writers do ANY research? The profile you depicted on tonight's program of NCIS was wrong on so many levels, it is hard to begin to correct. Most Hams are average people with normal jobs and normal life styles and families. We belong to clubs and churches. I know several doctors and police who are Hams. We volunteer with local Emergency Management Agencies as well as the National Weather Service and FEMA. Also, Tim stated he used a "Handle", and Ham operators do not. (CBers do) He also used a really bogus call sign that would never be issued. The equipment shown would have worked stations all over the world, not the 80 mile distance Tim said. Not only did you do us an injustice, you did the American people an injustice by misleading them. Who do you think has been providing the communications out of the islands hit by the recent hurricanes? I am very disappointed in your writers and I am seeing some bitter comments on social media. But then again, that's Hollywood. Don't let the facts get in the way of a good (or bad) story." 

As noted, I've never watched a full episode of this show. Now I'm glad I haven't wasted all that time if this is typical of the silliness they propagate. If you recorded it to watch later, don't bother. At least not for the amateur radio content. Or the goofy crime and how they eventually solve it, for that matter!

I'm just glad I decided to watch the World Series and give out candy to trick-or-treaters. After DVRing "NCIS," I was able to fast-forward through about a half hour of commercials and watch the silly show during breaks in the game.  

Even so, that's time I can never get back!

Thursday, October 12, 2017

What is it? A radio? No, I don't know how to work it.

by Don Keith

Yes, rapid technological change has led to quite a few things that were once commonplace becoming extinct.  Things like newspapers, telephone booths, and vinyl records.  When I taught communications, I often brought in a 45 or 33 RPM record and asked my classes of mostly 18-to-30-year-olds to tell me what it was.  Few could. 

Then it really hit me one day when I brought in a music CD and no one in the class knew what it was either, or had ever used one.  I felt as if I had been trampled by a dinosaur sprinting away from an Ice Age glacier.

So I am not surprised by this little demonstration from Great Britain's BBC. They gave a portable radio to random young people on the street and asked them to dial in "Radio One."  That is the government-owned broadcaster's primary channel.  I was not surprised that most of them were at least aware of the station itself, since there are still precious few choices on the radio broadcasting band in the UK.

What floored me was how long it took to find someone who actually knew how to use the frequency dial on the radio to find and tune in the station.  See for yourself.

But if you doubt the revelation, just ask the next person under 30 who climbs into your car what the "AM" means on your auto radio.

Now excuse me while I go put a stack of 45s on the Victrola, type up a few pages on the Selectric, and then arrange my VHS movie collection in chronological order.

(Thanks to Phil Sasnett KB4XX for the BBC link.)

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Two spleen-venting posts in one

By Don Keith  N4KC

Please allow me to get two things off my chest in one convenient rant, both about a couple of my favorite whipping boys, both media that have been very much affected by rapid technological change.

Spleen-vent #1:

Our old friends at the broadcast-radio news outlet INSIDE RADIO are at it again! A current email and website post crows loudly about Pandora, the free music-streaming service, increasing their commercial load from 3.3 commercials per hour to a whopping 5.3 commercials per hour on their free service. Two more commercials per hour!

How dare Pandora?!?  Don't they know that listeners will tune out in droves if they have their free streamed music interrupted by such a tremendous number of crass commercial messages each hour?

Thank goodness, good, old, free over-the-air radio broadcasters are not mistreating their listeners in such a vicious way. They somehow manage to only run between twelve and fifteen minutes of commercials each hour.  And to cram them into only two or three commercial breaks, so you can get them over with in one fell swoop. Well, in two fell swoops in most cases. And I'm sure that sixth or seventh commercial gets just as much attention for the advertiser as the first or second one.

And certainly more attention than the third or fourth one in an hour on Pandora.  Yes, broadcasters and INSIDE RADIO can absolutely chide Pandora for upping their commercial load by a stupendous 60%...from 3.3 to 5.3 commercials...because traditional broadcasters would have to fill up almost half of every hour to raise their own spot load by 60%.  Oooops. Maybe I should not have made that observation.  Some of them will do just that!

Now, I remove my tongue from my cheek to attack dying-medium #2, my local newspaper:

So I get an alert from my credit card company that there has been a charge initiated by The Birmingham News for $39.68.  Hmmmm.  I do charge my paper-newspaper subscription on that credit card, but that seemed a tad high for the quarterly renewal.

Sure enough, for the past year, the thrice-weekly paper has cost me $28.34 per quarter. It has suddenly--and without any note or warning--ratcheted up 34%!  By more than one-third!

So I call the customer service number, the only one I can find for The News, and get some clearly bored person in some distant city, likely working for a company that fields such calls as mine as an outsourced vendor. I doubt she could find Birmingham on the map, much less my Wednesday paper in the privet hedge adjacent to my driveway. It is also obvious I am not her first call on this particular subject as she immediately informs me, directly from the script in front of her, "This is an increase due to increased paper and distribution costs."

"Odd," I respond, "Since the newspaper you now toss into my driveway is easily a third as many sheets of newsprint as it was only a few years ago.  And you only toss it three days a week, and not the former seven.  I would think the cost of newsprint and distribution would have had to go up at least 12 times (a third as much paper delivered three-sevenths as often) its former cost for there to be an increase of any kind warranted."

She had no scripted comeback so immediately said, "I can offer you two free weeks."

I did the math quickly.  $39.68 divided by 13 weeks is $3.05.  Two free weeks would net me $6.10, about the cost of a Big Mac combo.  I would still pay $33.58 for the eleven non-free weeks.

"Not good enough. You folks are lucky I still subscribe at all because..."

"I can give you a month free," she interrupted. As I say, she has heard all this before out there in Denver (where their call center is if you have an issue with not getting a paper thrown) or over in Atlanta (where the newspaper is printed each of those three days of the week when they bother putting out a paper paper) or wherever she is located.  "Plus you continue to have access to the daily e-edition of the paper."

Thank you for that!  That e-edition.  Same as the paper edition three days a week.  The comics and puzzles the other four, which eventually show up in the printed editions when they bother to throw it to me. All in a clunky interface that is difficult to access and read. Or I can get the same stories on their Internet affiliate, AL.com.  An even clunkier interface, burdened by incessant pop-up and fly-in ads that seize the screen mid-paragraph, starts loud audio ad messages for which it is impossible to find a cut-off, and constantly dump cookies and other junk on my hard drive.

"Not good enough, ma'am.  I need..."

"We will return you to your previous rate of $28.34 per quarter, sir."

"And credit my card with the difference on the current charge?"

"Yessir."  Sounds of clicking.  "We have credited your card with the difference, sir. Thank you for being a subscriber and I hope you have..."

"Wait. Is there a number I can call or an email address I can use to express my concern about such a big increase with no notice?"

"No, sir. We do not have any other number or email address.  Thank you for being a subscriber and I hope you have a wonderful rest of your day."


Just as with my old favorite medium--and the one that fed my family for more than three decades--broadcast radio, the newspaper seems destined to commit economic suicide by doing dumb stuff at a time when rapid technological change is already threatening their very existence.

Now would be the time to do things to counter change over which these media have no control.  Instead they continue to shoot themselves in the foot with remarkably good aim.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

What is Nielsen thinking?

By Don Keith
For those who do not know, Nielsen is the company that dominates ratings measurement for television and radio. (They bought Arbitron several years ago, assuring both traditional media would be owned, lock, stock and barrel, by a single entity.)  And also know that accurate viewer and listener data is crucial, not only for stations, cable and satellite companies, advertisers, and program providers, but for consumers as well.  The shows you watch, the formats you hear, are determined by viewer and listener data. Heads roll based on minor swings in "the numbers." Careers are upended if a show drops in ratings or a personality on the radio does not beat the competition. But the products you are able to buy and how you hear about them is also determined by how successfully advertisers can reach their target audience.

All that explanation is to set up what I think is a major glitch in how Nielsen is trying to make their data more reliable. For TV, most rating info comes from a set-top box in each home, attached to TVs, that automatically measure what people watch. A bunch more viewing is measured by volunteers who keep a paper diary and write down what they see and when.  Something similar happens with radio. In bigger cities, a group of people volunteer to carry a small, beeper-like device that keeps track of what the person is hearing from radios. But a sizable number of towns still rely on the outmoded paper diary.  How "Twentieth Century!"

The problem is that these methodologies are expensive and it is becoming more and more difficult to recruit people willing to install the box on their TVs, carry the little meter, or, worse, write down all they see and listen to in a one-week diary. That is especially true of younger people, a valuable target audience to many marketers.

Data is more important than ever, and especially to under-siege media like over-the-air radio and TV, yet it is becoming more and more difficult for Nielsen to provide accurate information.  So what does Nielsen do?

They go out and spend over half a billion dollars to buy a company that has technology to gather data about radio listening in cars, unbeknownst to the car's owner and/or operator. I won't even go into the concerns I have about the privacy violations of such a scheme. I'm just amazed that the company is spending so much on something that will only duplicate the capabilities of the existing technology they already own, the little beeper-like device they picked up when they bought Arbitron.

I don't know all the ramifications, or the impetus for them to do the deal, but seems to me that Nielsen could have spent that half billion bucks on recruiting more folks to carry their beeper--which, by the way, measures radio and TV--and on increasing economy of scale in manufacturing the devices while improving that technology. And moving more markets away from the diary methodology.

But what is another half billion? Heads roll, careers end, products are not able to be properly marketed. But nobody can go to the other ratings provider.

There isn't one.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

AM broadcasting continues to fade away...literally and figuratively

   By Don Keith

I've blogged here often about how AM broadcast radio is dead, dead, dead, and weak efforts by the Federal Communications Commission to save it are futile at best and laughable when you get right down to it.

Further proof? See this post on Facebook, decrying the fact that a legendary, high-powered AM station in Chattanooga, Tennessee, WFLI, is going dark...the broadcasting term for pulling the big switch, signing off and not signing back on.

How is the FCC trying to overcome the obvious, the fact that rapid technological change and its inherent flotsam and jetsam has left AM broadcasting in its wake?  By offering AM station owners weak, ineffective FM stations on which they can re-broadcast their AM programming and allowing them to make minor, subtle changes to their on-air signals.

Neither will work, of course. FM translators are just cluttering up an already crowded FM band and those that do manage to find an audience are only further diluting ratings and listener-ship, making it more difficult for anyone to make a living. The AM band is also rife with man-made electrical noise, making stations almost unlistenable in urban areas. In many cases, the real estate on which the AM stations' towers rest is worth far more than the station as a whole.

But the main issue is one the FCC cannot possibly solve. BROADcasting as an advertising medium is rapidly becoming obsolete. Most advertisers want to NARROW-cast. We now live in an age in which a merchant selling widgets to 22-to-27-year-old Hispanic males can direct a message right to them. They don't have to pay the freight to "purchase" the ears of 18-to-34-year-old males just to reach their very narrow target...and one that is actively searching specifically for the product offered by the merchant, not just potentially being lost among the mass of listeners to a radio station.

Sad to see an icon, and once a member of the same group of stations for whom I worked, throw up their hands and pull the plug. But you will see more and more examples of stations with which we grew up go off the air. Many have already changed to niche formats or ride satellite programming that is of little interest to listeners (but it's cheap!) Some are mere excuses to have one of those low-power FM translator stations and that is not economically viable.

I stand by my prediction: the current AM broadcasting band will be a ham radio band within ten years. N4KC says that, but I am not happy about it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Another "wizard" is gone

By Don Keith
We lost one brilliant human being the other day.

I first met Courtney Haden when we were both students at Alabama. I knew right away he was smarter than the average Broadcast and Film Communication student, most of whom would have been happy to just graduate and then pull the midnight-to-six deejay shift on an AM in Clanton.

We sort of kept up with each other but I'll never forget the day he and Greg contacted me and asked if they could provide me a short comedy sketch bit on my morning show on WRKK K-99FM. Their demo of "4th Avenue Car Wash" was so brilliantly observational, bitingly on-point and goofily funny on so many levels it was an easy answer. Plus they were offering it free. It went on the air right away and ran for I-don't-remember-how-long. (I'm tearing the place apart hoping to find some cassettes of the show. Greg Bass? Help!)

I wondered but don't remember asking why they weren't doing a radio show somewhere. The medium desperately needed them. Soon they were, on Kix106. And it was good. No, it was TOO good. And I was glad I had moved on to Nashville and did not have to try to compete. He and Greg are among those "wizards" to whom I dedicated my novel, WIZARDS OF THE WIND, radio personalities who could work magic with a couple of microphones, a pair of turntables, and some tape cart machines.

Last time I saw Courtney, I was voicing a book at Boutwell Studios, a dry and verbose training manual for employees at some factory somewhere. He made it a fun experience. That was no small task, engineering efficiently while trying to stay awake and not giggle at my solemn, serious tone. We promised to get together soon and catch up on everything that has happened since 1968, but...well...you know how that goes.

Then, in this day of instant communication, I did not hear about Courtney's crossing the bar until this morning. I know one thing. If there is any way possible, he will pen a droll, astute, accurate, heart-breaking, hilarious article about the whole experience. And I'd read it and, as usual, wish I was half the writer he was.

I'll be checking upcoming issues of Weld and other local publications, just in case he finds a way.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

How rapid technological change cost me almost $200

By Don Keith
Rapid technological change often brings us convenience and benefit we could not have even dreamed of a few years ago. Take booking a rental for our annual family beach trip. Once upon a time, such a transaction was conducted blindly, typically by mail, or on a long-distance telephone circuit.

Now, we are able to not only see and easily compare potential places, with rates, amenities, available dates, and more, but we can book them quickly and securely. It is especially helpful to be able to see photos of rooms to determine how beds will work for our brood, the size of the kitchen and living area, and to confirm the pool is not a plastic tub on stilts. Good stuff!

But I just learned a costly lesson. All that convenience and info may well mask the fact that you may encounter unexpected costs.

I'll try to make this quick, and hope it saves some of you some money. We were pretty sure of the property we wanted to rent. I Googled it and quickly found that it was actually rented by two different outfits, a local real estate company and VRBO.com.  The local outfit's website was lacking a bit in design convenience so I switched to VRBO to better peruse the pictures, rates, availability calendar, and other info. Both sites clearly showed identical rates and open dates so I went ahead and began the booking process on the VRBO site.

All was fine until I got to step two and noticed that the total price--including a $250 cleaning fee, a $100 administrative fee, and a whopping 11% lodging tax, all of which showed as additional charges on both websites--was still more than $200 higher than what it should have been.  It appeared to me that they may have charged me the "pet fee" though I clearly indicated in step 1 that we would have no pets with us.

So I reverted to the old-fashioned way and called the VRBO customer service number. A nice lady who spoke very difficult-to-understand English assured me my total rental would be exactly what I first expected and insisted that she stay on the line while I completed the online form, just in case I encountered other anomalies.  I tried but in only a moment or so, their nice form refused to accept the expiration date on my credit card, even though it is valid and I had entered it precisely as they told me to.

Again the hard-to-understand lady offered to enter the info on her end and get the reservation completed "before someone else takes the open week you want." I allowed her to do so.

"Have you read and agreed to our terms?" she asked at one point.

"No," I told her. "Your web site will not allow me to see them until sometime later in the process."

She assured me there was no commitment until I had accessed and read the terms, which I soon learned consisted of about six pages of tiny print.  While she waited, I skimmed it as well as I could and actually saw no issues. It was identical to other terms I had seen from other rentals in the past.  It did include the really scary info that unless you purchase their renter's insurance, you cannot cancel the agreement and get any of your money back, not even if there is a zombie apocalypse or the planet is destroyed by meteors. I did not want to pay over $300 for such protection, nor have I in the past, so I agreed to the terms.

Then, when she told me the grand total, it was the higher amount that had sent me to the toll free number in the first place. First, the cleaning fee was actually $275, not the $250 listed on both websites. "The owner probably raised the fee and we just have not updated the site," she told me.

OK. The clock was ticking. Vultures were probably swooping in and grabbing my week, the only one the entire family had decided would work for everyone.  But what about the rest of it?  Another $180?

"That is the VRBO charge...what we charge for handling the rental for the owner. It also covers our customer satisfaction guarantee. We cannot complete the rental unless you agree to that."

Dumb me, I assumed VRBO got their $180 whether I rented on their site, the real estate company's site, or directly from the owner.  I further assumed they had exclusivity and that I would pay no matter how I committed.  I swallowed hard and did the deal.

Minutes later, when I received an email receipt--from the local real estate company, NOT VRBO--I noticed the charge was the original smaller amount I had at first expected, plus the unexpected $25 of cleaning fee increase.  No $180 for VRBO's time and trouble and customer satisfaction guarantee.  Same with the email confirmation from my credit card company that I get anytime anything gets charged online.

I promptly called the real estate folks to see what was what.  They were extremely nice.  Even apologetic.  The lady--in a nice way--told me I was a sucker for going with VRBO and not using their site.

"But I thought VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner) was cheaper or at least the same as you real estate guys," I whined.

"Rarely if ever," she said. "They charge the same rates we do plus a fee to cover their overhead and make a profit."

"That's not built into the rate?" I naively asked. "Your commission is."

"No. We always urge renters to use our site and not have to pay their fee."

"Where on your website do you urge us to do that?" I asked.

"We don't. We are afraid there may be legal ramifications."

"Legal ramifications for telling folks that the other guys charge more than you do?" I asked her incredulously. "Oh, and what about the additional $25 plus the 11% tax on it to clean up the joint after we vacate?"

"Oh, the owner must have raised the price and forgot to tell us."

"Shouldn't you make that change on your website?"

"I'll put in a work order but it may take several weeks."

Rapid technological change, indeed! But she did immediately volunteer to remove that charge from our total.  I also told her the credit card charge they had already done did not include the VRBO fee.

"They will run the card a second time for that," she assured me.  Indeed they did.  That bit of email news arrived by the time I had finished my chat with the nice lady.  And she remained nice, even when I fussed about how their website was funky and that was what sent me galloping over to VRBO in the first place.

I admit I was the typical gullible shopper.  I assumed too much.  I assumed VRBO was cheaper (or at least the same cost) as the local real estate guys.  Then I assumed the real estate people would charge me that extra fee if I worked through them instead of VRBO.  And that if I didn't nail down that one week we needed, it would be gone in an hour or two.

No, I should have told broken-English-lady at VRBO goodbye when she insisted I read all those pages of fine print and pay the unexpected fee.  And when she didn't immediately agree to honor the cleaning fee as it appeared on their website. Then I should have verified the price with the locals.

But it was so easy.  So convenient.  The pictures on the VRBO site were so beautiful.  Even when I hit a snag trying to rent online, there was the English-language-challenged lady perfectly willing to type stuff into the form for me.

And for all that technology, I ended up paying $180.